Ha Long Bay is one of Vietnam's top ten experiences for foreign travelers. When Ha Long Bay was recognized by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage site in 1997, tourism seemed to be bursting at the seams in this truly unique place. Hundreds of tourist companies, both domestic and international, built their tours on cruises around Ha Long Bay, providing tourists with a wide range of choices for their journeys to enjoy the unique beauty of the bay, which lies along the Hon Gai coastal town in Quang Ninh province.
Most people chose to stay one or two nights on board, with elegant food presentations and adventure options to entertain more rugged travelers. I chose to spend a night at Ha Long Bay with the Ha Long Ginger, a large wooden ship dripping with old-world charm. I really wanted to spend more than one night on this boat after quietly chugging along through the innumerable aquatic paths created by each uninhabited island.
Cruise manager Michelle Thong standing on deck wandering as the Ginger approached, her white ao dai billing in the wind – a true vision against the blue sea and sky of Ha Long Bay in the afternoon. Then we sailed deep into the bay for about four hours, breathing in the fresh sea air the whole way. After the captain ordered his crew to set sail, new sounds and colors filled the air, giving us a truly beautiful experience.
Cruise manager Sonny Bui escorted us to our cabins and handed us keys in the shape of a fish. The air-conditioned room really won us over with large windows for viewing the scenery, a sparkling bathroom, five-star fluffy beds and all amenities. And the person whose passion attaches to traveling and cruising was open to share his story about this wonderful ship.
Bui Cao Son, or Sonny Bui, who worked 12 years in tourism traveling to many places inside and outside Viet Nam, is the man behind the Ginger. Son said he wanted to do something on his own to capitalize and develop what he had learned and experienced after years working as a tour guide. The 36-year-old, called Sonny Bui by his foreign friends, wanted to make something different from the tours which have been mostly designed on the same route. "Our route is wider and goes through new interesting places that others do not," said Son. "That's the first thing we aimed at when we started building up our tour two years ago."
"The most discouraging thing for us is the idea that there is not a professional wooden shipbuilding company," said Bui Cao Son, who ever got the Ha Long Ginger built after 14 months of working with fishing boat builders.
The US $ 500,000 beauty, which has 10 rooms and can serve a maximum of 20 travelers, was put into operation early this year. The boat was built through the co-regulation of Huong Hai Company, which has more than 10 years of experience designing and building boats for tourists to stay on overnight. Huong Hai boats are among the first giving overnight tours at Ha Long Bay.
The Ginger blends classical beauty with modern comfort, catering to groups of between six and 20 people. Measuring 38m in length and 8m in width, it has three decks that house the elegant restaurant, a lounge, two bars, a small boutique and a library, as well as ten luxurious sleeping cabins. Fitted out with wood and bamboo, its interior is charming. The stylish decoration of the dining room – not to mention the fact that the staff change their uniforms to serve meals – is highly impressive, apparently more fitted to a five-star hotel.
"Sonny and I designed the cruise," said Thong, a Malaysian-American who worked as a tour escort / leader in the US before coming to Viet Nam four years ago. "We worked hard together to create a design which could give the best comfort to our customers," said Thong who has been working on the Ginger cruise for a year. "We put a lot of ideas into the blueprint with an aim to infuse Vietnamese style in western comfort," added Thong. She did a boat project in HCM City two years ago before working with Son on the Ginger.
Thong said the cruise was designed to embrace taking care of customers and the staffs are present to provide anything needed. Amenities on the cruise are from the same provider of Park Hyatt, ensuring guests feel they are in a world of luxury.
"To give visitors a good night of sleep, we equipped the rooms with high-quality beds," said Son, adding that he wanted large windows (1.2mx 1.3m) to give customers the best view from their rooms. Bamboo is a major feature in the restaurant and lounge, which is associated with other kinds of wooden materials and flower designs making the whole middle deck's ceiling into more of an artwork. The mixture of elegant decorations, food and service left reflecting impressions on customers after leaving the Ginger, most of which have plans to come back for a group celebration or possible honeymoon trips.
With the expected increase in number of customers, the Ginger will be joined by sisters to meet the demand of visitors. "We are building two other cruises of such kind with the hope of giving more interesting tours to the visitors," said Son, who customers are mostly from five-star hotels like Metropole Ha Noi, Hilton and Sofitel Plaza. The two new ships are to be named after two kinds of flowers, Jasmine and Violet, with which Son wants to add more elegant colors to Ha Long Bay.